And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.
[This is the third installment of a four-part discussion on this scripture.]
Jesus, the chief priests, and the elders have been doing some verbal sparring on Days 182-185. And now, Jesus ends the exchange with a very direct statement –“And so I tell you the Kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a people who will produce the proper fruits.”
On Day 186 I reflected that the fruit Jesus is looking for is probably love, and on Day 187 I questioned whether or not Jesus would find fruit in today’s churches. I concluded that love is indeed manifested in many of today’s churches. I proposed that churches are generally both able and willing to provide long-term love and support for those in need. But, if that’s the case, then why aren’t the “outcasts” that Jesus loved so much flocking to the churches?
Well, I think there are a lot of reasons. Of course there are good churches and bad churches out there, and if a person gets burned by a bad one they often give up and never try another one. Nevertheless I think there are a lot more good churches than bad ones out there, especially the mainline Protestant churches. They may not be the most exciting when it comes to entertainment value, but they are the safest for today’s outcasts. They tend to be kinder and there is less pressure to conform than in evangelical, charismatic, Roman Catholic and other flavors of churches. For people in need or those who have been rejected by society, the mainline churches are a good choice. However, like the social outcasts that they love to serve, mainline churches are sort of invisible. They don’t receive have much media attention and they don’t do a very good job getting their message out there. Consequently, I think many of today’s social outcasts avoid the churches that could provide them with so much support primarily because they have misconceptions and fears about mainline churches. Just for fun I think I’ll explore those misconceptions and fears a little bit.
Misconceptions about Churches
- Misconception #1 – Church people are mean and judgmental – In my experience every church has a couple of unbelievably saintly people and a couple of absolute stinkers. Most of the other people are just nice, well-meaning folks who like to worship and grow in love and get involved with other people who want to help change the world for the better. Not everyone in church has this goal, but I can’t think of any other place where you are more likely to find people like this. Most people are nice, so you just have to ignore the few stinkers.
- Misconception #2 – Church never changes – A lot of people I’ve talked to attended church in the 1960s or 1980s or whatever and haven’t been back since. Churches are always changing. I’d say, in general, they are more casual, more friendly, and less boring than they were a few decades ago. You can’t tell the difference between the rich and the poor based on how they dress, so everyone fits in.
- Misconception #3 – Most people come to church to learn and study the Bible – Every church has sermons and classes, but the main reason people come is to enjoy fellowship with other Christians. They come for friendship, encouragement, conversation, networking, sharing, and those kinds of things. They want to be part of a community that is trying to make the world a better place.
- Misconception #4 – Church is a really just another self-improvement program – Church is sometimes marketed as though it’s a self-improvement program, the goal of which is normalcy and respectability. That was never Jesus’ intention. He had the sense to know that certain people really don’t want to be normal and respectable. They just want to be themselves and have a happy life. Jesus wasn’t big on self-improvement. He was big on self-awareness, but not self-improvement. His mission was to help people realize that they are children of God and expand their perceptions about what they are capable of. He never pushed them to be normal and respectable. He pushed them to be extraordinary and unconventional. He helped them find themselves. He didn’t try to push them into a mold. Neither do most churches, although over time your new church friends may try to help you find and develop your own special gifts.
- Misconception #5 – You have to have to pretend to have a perfect life to be accepted at church – Mainline churches generally emphasize that God loves you wherever you are at. They teach that everyone is acceptable in the eyes of God. In most mainline Protestant churches the prevailing wisdom is that God loves you for who you are, not for what you do. They teach that nothing you do can make him love you more or less. So, for outcasts, this is good news. And this “liberal theology” is very much in conformity with the teachings of Jesus. Jesus didn’t tell the outcasts he ministered to that they were inadequate. He didn’t fixate on their flaws or tell them they were going to hell. He reserved that kind of rhetoric for the Pharisees and other religious leaders. He was kind to the people he served. He told them they were the salt of the earth, the light for the world, that they could heal themselves and others, that they could do anything through faith. Sure, there are churches out there that say you will go to hell if you are gay or divorced or on drugs or having an affair or not diligent about your prayer life or pro-choice or a multitude of other things, but for mainline Protestant churches this is the exception rather than the rule.
- Misconception #6 – Churches are social service agencies – People in need often come to church in the same way that they go to a social service agency, expecting to receive economic assistance or some other handout without getting involved with the church community. In reality most churches have very limited funds for this kind of assistance, so those who come to church for this kind of help usually go away disappointed. However, as I pointed out yesterday, churches are communities of love and are capable of providing needy people with many different kinds of ongoing support if they choose to become part of the community.
And Here Some Things People Fear about Churches
- They are afraid of people in general – In my experience many people end up homeless or on drugs or in economic trouble because they have relational dysfunction. However, if they can overcome their fear, those who have problems relating to others can get a lot of help and advice in this area. In all churches there is a lot of gentle fellowship, as well as great teaching about self-worth, the importance of forgiveness, and letting go of the past.
- They are afraid they won’t fit in – At one level, everyone is different. At another level, everyone is the same. At most churches they work hard to make everyone feel welcome. At most churches everyone fits in. For every church that is unfriendly and unwelcoming, there are thousands that bend over backwards to make sure everyone feels wanted and appreciated.
- They are afraid someone will hurt their feelings – This is a danger. Someone in church will probably eventually hurt their feelings because that’s the way it works with relationships. But church can help heal people’s emotional wounds so that they become less sensitive. It can also serve as an emotional proving ground where people can learn how to work out conflicts and hurt feelings in a productive manner. Because most church people really want to get along with each other, it’s a great place to pick up some skills in this area.
- They are afraid they will feel worse about themselves – Generally, churches work pretty hard to make people feel better about themselves, just like Jesus did. If a church systematically and collectively is demeaning to those in need, it’s not going to produce the fruit of love. There are a lot of good ones out there, but if a person is plagued by shame and guilt, going to church can stir up these negative emotions. They need to be healed of these things before they can connect with others in a church.
As I said earlier, I think churches have a role to play in helping those in need in the same way that Jesus did, but I think they could do a better serving those who are isolated and in need. That’s going to be the subject of tomorrow’s blog as I finish off this discussion of good fruit. What could the church do to minister more effectively to the today’s outcasts – the homeless, the drug addicted, the mentally ill, the bitter, the lonely, the isolated.
What does this scripture say to you?